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Getting the Anti-Racism Agenda RightGetting the Anti-Racism Agenda Right

Getting the Anti-Racism Agenda Right

There’s no question Canadians must call out systemic bigotry, Peter Stockland says, but he cautions we must also be systematic in making sure we call the right things by that name.

Peter Stockland
8 minute read

Leading up to Canada Day this week, the country’s most public Irishman called on us all to make overcoming systemic racism a crucial objective for the decade ahead.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney set out the challenge in what he called an Agenda for Greatness, which was published as a Globe and Mail op-ed as well as in reportage by the inestimable Bob Fife. 

Key to his Agenda, Mulroney said, was finally fulfilling our long overdue debt to Indigenous Canadians by making them proper partners in Confederation. We must also, he added, eradicate for once and all the anti-Semitism that gnawed like a rat on Canada’s soul throughout the 20th century. He stressed, too, that it is past time we paid more than polite-Canadian lip service to the reality that Black lives matter in this land (as do all those Don Cherry infamously derided as “you people” last year).

The former PM, whose policy pursuits through the 1980s and early 1990s I would largely applaud even if he weren’t such a boisterous booster of his Irish heritage, was yet again absolutely right. As Canada enters its 154th year, Canadians citizens must unfailingly face racism’s past and present wrongs. 

Yet something must be added to Mulroney’s exhortation (not a phrase normally applied to the former politician famous for seldom leaving anything left to say). It is the caveat that while we must call out racism, we must be just as vigilant about ensuring we’re calling the right thing racist. Before we can implement the agenda, we might need a time of less prescribing hasty-fix solutions, and more time describing the perils we’re creating on the path we’re already going down.

The nature of such perils became descriptively evident in June when three high-profile examples emerged of what might be called “wrong call” racism. All of which constituted severe injustices to former Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, veteran CBC journalist Wendy Mesley, and Paul Bunner, a long-time magazine editor and currently speech writer for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Apart from the harm done to the individuals sideswiped by the accusations, the tactics pursued and the punishments demanded are counterproductive for rooting out and ridding ourselves of systemic bigotry (of which racism is obviously a major subset). 

Wente, for example, was ousted from a senior fellowship at the Quadrangle Society of Massey College, an independent affiliate of the University of Toronto – technically she withdrew her nomination over the “false and outrageous” accusations made against her – for such sins as writing a column that an editor headlined “What if Race is More than a Social Construct?” The column reviewed a book that challenges existing consensus about the balance between race and culture in predicting social success. 

Agree or disagree with the book or her column, Wente was writing in her long-established voice as the Globe’s careful contrarian, a role Jordan Peterson’s meteoric rise to fame showed is as desperately needed in academia as in journalism. In fairness, she did have two stains on her record for confirmed plagiarism in 2012 and 2016, which would typically be enough to drive any academic into frozen exile. 

But the copying of others’ work wasn’t the crux of the complaint that drove Wente from the Quadrangle. At age 70, after a long career as an award-winning writer, she was deemed by complainants, in writing, to be “unsafe” to be around faculty, staff and students. Unsafe, in this case, meant she did not hew to, or at least posed questions about, current academic racial theory. It led to the conclusion that if she is not, ipso facto, a proven racist, she is worthy of being put on the usual suspect list and shunned by circles of proper society. 

The treatment afforded Wendy Mesley by her bosses and her peers at CBC was even more chilling than the academic ostracism of Wente. She was first suspended from her role as host of her weekly news program, then clearly “voluntold” to make a humiliating public admission of guilt and “deep shame” for having spoken, in her words, “the word that should never be said” at a story meeting. 

It turns out she actually spoke the unspeakable twice. Once this spring she quoted it during a meeting as having been used by an upcoming guest on her show. Last fall, she referenced Pierre Vallieres’ incendiary 1968 book, Les Negres blancs d’Amerique, from his days at the intellectual leader of the terrorist FLQ.  She used the English translation of the title, which won’t appear here but can be found all over the Internet. (An Internet search side trip will also quickly turn up Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” where he also twice quotes the word that must never be spoken.) 

As it happens, the same word can be heard as well in virtually every rap or hip-hop song unleashed on the world for the past 40 years, including in those by a certain Mr. Aubrey Drake Graham, the hyper-talented Toronto-born lad who became a billionaire by being part of a musical genre in which “the word that must never be spoken” is as common as moon-June-spoon was in the old Tin Pan Alley days. 

So, for habitually speaking the unspeakable word as part of popular culture, Drake gets carte blanche to get rich, so to speak. Meanwhile, Mesley suffers ritual public mortification merely for a citing, in a private meeting, the title of a historically important 52-year-old book. The question goes beyond fair or unfair. The question is whether or not humiliating her is how we show our serious intention to attack systemic racism. Are we really content with being distracted by a shaming show?

For his part, Paul Bunner would never claim the same degree of celebrity as Wendy Mesley but the personal attacks he’s endured over the past week or so elevated him even above what she’s gone through. The piling on began when Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley demanded Bunner’s resignation as Premier Kenney’s speechwriter for a column he wrote seven years ago. 

At the time, he was editor of C2C Journal, a production of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. The publication served as a conversation catalyst for Canada’s conservative movement. In the column in question, Bunner questioned in sharp language the “bogus genocide story” around Indian Residential Schools. He raised the suspicion – hardly his alone – that Indigenous political operatives were playing the saga for power and pecuniary gain. 

My own belief is that the suspicion itself buckles under a heavy load of bogusness. Even granting for the sake of argument that Indigenous politicians (being no less politicians than any other kind of politician) saw opportunity rising phoenix-like from generations of suffering, doesn’t alleviate that burden. Why? Because there was documented horrifying, violent abuse at the Residential schools. To ignore it for any reason – including counter-political reasons – is to falsify it. It happened. We cannot say it did not. Compelling historical evidence affirms it did.

To further argue that some Residential school survivors came through the experience unscathed is the weakest kind of question begging. To craft an analogy, some young women upon whom the vile predators Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein turned their sulphurous attentions also managed to slip the net. Does that make anything different. Does it make it right? Of course not.

Neither can considering Bunner wrong in that opinion justify the vilification he has subsequently suffered. The original complaint against him for disputing the claim of “genocide” exploded into a cherry picked “uncovering” of virtually every word he’s published during the past 20 years either at C2C or in his days as editor of the Byfield family’s unabashedly conservative Alberta Report. The upshot is that he was declared not only a racist but – surprise, surprise – a sexist and homophobe as well: today’s thorny triple crown of non-personhood. 

Is this process of political dehumanizing really how we want to end systemic bigotry? Surely at the levels of intellectual and moral coherence we must ask ourselves how it constitutes progress to finally do away with mistreating people on the basis of “wrong skin” only to substitute savaging them for “wrong think.”

It’s fitting that the catalyst for surfacing Bunner’s purported “wrong think” was the issue of genocide. Genocide, after all, is a thing. A legal thing. It has the peculiar quality of the law that requires it to be a particular thing. 

A primary thing, in the definition of it relied upon by the UN only since 1948, is proof of intentionality. It can cover a host of human evils but their wickedness must be committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group…” (my emphasis). It’s a matter of evidence, not just opinion or thought or feeling, which makes it hard to prove and easy to dispute. 

If you ask me, for example, I will insist the death of a million people from starvation and disease during Ireland’s Great Famine of 1845-50 was categorically a genocide. I believe it was. I am convinced in my bones it was. I will always and emphatically say it was. Though I am nowhere near as famous a Canadian Irishman as Brian Mulroney, my desire to stand up for my ancestral peeps lets me do no less than to argue that an Gorta Mór – the Great Hunger – was genocide.

But what-ho? If you ask professional historians, most would emphatically disagree with me based on the current understanding of what genocide means. Feckless British government policy built on the toxic principle of active neglect, historians will point out, does not automatically equal the methodical extermination of a people. Hitler’s genocidal Nazi government mechanically planned and pursued the “final solution” by trying to kill every Jew in Europe during the Holocaust. By contrast, the Victorian moral blind bats who watched the Famine unfold had no desire to eliminate the Irish race. They wanted to use hunger to “improve” it by purifying its “socially evil” habits. (See: Canadian Indian Residential school system above.)

Nuance matters though the fate of millions weighs in the balance. It must matter if we are to glean the true meaning of their suffering and avoiding reducing their deaths to mere statistics.

Given the exacting demand for nuance, then, it hardly seems beyond the pale for the editor of a conservative thought journal to question the validity of claims of “genocide” the Residential schools. We might disagree with him. We might be uncertain whether he’s wrong or right yet stint at his use of the word “bogus” as insensitive to say the least. We might argue strongly that the definition should be re-opened to let people who weren’t key to the original defining process – namely Indigenous populations – add their influence how it’s qualified.

Surely, though, we would agree that in a country where freedom of belief is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we ought to be equally exacting about taking a man’s livelihood away from him for expressing opinions that, at this date, can neither be proven wholly wrong nor entirely right. 

Surely, too, we would go even further and insist that where real personal harm, up to and including character assassination, is being inflicted on people for expressing ideas, for speaking certain words, we are doing a disservice to the fight against systemic racism itself. Rather than making it a key part of former Prime Minister Mulroney’s Agenda for Greatness, we are diminishing the larger cause by putting it in the service of the most ignoble of our failings: the inchoate desire to knock other human beings down and keep them there. 

By every means available to us as Canadian citizens, let us challenge systemic bigotry. Let us fully own past wrongs and present bad habits. But let us also ask, who wins when the change we seek still means the power to humiliate is the ultimate prize?

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